Rescue officials in Hungary say there is little chance of locating survivors after a sightseeing boat with South Korean tourists on board capsized on the Danube River in Budapest, with seven people confirmed dead and 21 missing.
The Mermaid sank in just seconds after colliding with a much larger cruise ship on a busy stretch of the river in the heart of the capital on Wednesday evening.
Officials said 30 South Korean tourists, including at least one child, three South Korean tour guides and two Hungarian crew were on board the 27-metre double-decker boat when the accident occurred at around 9pm (19:00 GMT) in heavy rain.
Seven South Koreans were rescued, seven died and 19 South Koreans were among the 21 missing. The crew members were also missing.
The seven people rescued were suffering from hypothermia but were in stable condition. Police said the seven people who died had no life vests on.
“I wouldn’t say there is no hope, rather that there is a minimal chance [of finding survivors],” Pal Gyorfi, a spokesman for the Hungarian national ambulance service, told the M1 state broadcaster.
“This is not just because of the water temperature, but [also] the strong currents in the river, the vapour above the water surface, as well as the clothes worn by the people who fell in,” he added.
Investigation under way
At the time of the collision, most passengers were sheltering from heavy rain inside the boat, Mihaly Toth, a spokesman for Mermaid owner Panorama Deck told the weekly magazine HVG.
Both described the chances of more survivors being found as “very slim”.
Survivors said about 20 people were on the deck taking photographs or preparing to disembark. The others were in the cabin.
“I saw that big cruise ship coming closer to us but I had never imagined it would ram our boat,” said a 31-year-old South Korean surnamed Jeong. She was quoted by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
Jeong said she and others on the deck were thrown into the cold Danube waters by the effect of the collision. Police said it took only seven seconds for the boat to overturn and sink.
She said she saw a lifeboat drifting near her and managed to get hold of it. She threw a rope to another South Korean tourist surnamed Yoon, who was close to her.
“Our boat was turned over in an instant and began sinking,” Yoon, 32, told Yonhap. “All those on the deck fell into water and I think those staying in the cabin on the first floor couldn’t probably get out of the ship swiftly.”
While holding onto the lifeboat together, Jeong and Yoon said they shed tears when they saw the heads of other people coming up and down in the fast-moving river.
“The people plunged into the river in the darkness and shouted ‘Help me!’ while floundering in the waters. But I couldn’t do anything for them,” Jeong said, crying.
Another survivor surnamed Ahn, 60, said a crew member of another sightseeing boat sailing nearby extended a hand to him after he was tossed into the river. But he lost grip and was carried away by waters before he got hold of a drifting plastic object.
Yoon said rescuers were only able to pick up those who were in the lifeboats or clinging to them, or who held the hands of people extended from other boats nearby.
Yoon said she saw the cruise ship that rammed her boat keep sailing without taking any rescue steps after the collision.
The 135-metre four-storey Viking Sigyn had about 180 passengers on board.
“We were on our balcony and we saw people in the water, screaming for help,” said Ginger Brinton, a 66-year-old tourist from the United States on the Viking Sigyn.
“We never felt any bump. We didn’t realise. We just saw people in the water. It was just terrible.”
Police said on Thursday that the captain of the Viking Sigyn had been taken into custody and “questioned as a suspect … in relation to ‘endangering waterborne traffic resulting in multiple deaths'”.
“After being questioned, 64-year-old Yuriy C, a resident of [the Ukrainian city of] Odessa, was detained and a request for his arrest has been made,” the statement added.
Video footage from a security camera screened by police showed the bigger boat catching up from behind at a higher speed, clipping the Mermaid’s left side.
“The (Mermaid) for some reason, turns into the way of the Viking. And the Viking, as it bumps into it, pushes it… and within seven seconds … (Mermaid) sinks,” said Pal, of the Hungarian national ambulance service, describing the video.
Officials said the hull of the Mermaid had been found on the riverbed a few hundred metres from its usual mooring point.
A crane ship docked near the wreck on Thursday in preparation for recovery operations and divers prepared equipment. Police said the rescue efforts were hampered by high water levels, strong currents and bad visibility.
“Those who were trapped in the hull or were stuck underneath can be lifted only once the wreckage is pulled out,” a police statement said.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban offered his condolences to South Korea and sought to ensure Seoul that Budapest was making every possible effort to find survivors, Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the authorities would work with the Hungarian government to investigate the cause of the accident.
“What’s most important is speed,” Moon said in Seoul.
Some South Korean relatives of those on board began to depart for Hungary, with several family members seen at Incheon International Airport in Seoul on Thursday night.
South Korean rescue teams and officials, including Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, also left for Budapest on Thursday. She will hold a news conference with her Hungarian counterpart Peter Szijjarto at 07:30 GMT on Friday.
Well-wishers laid flowers outside the South Korean embassy in Budapest, and candles burned on the Danube bank.
The Mermaid’s owner said the boat – a Soviet model manufactured in 1949 and refurbished in the 1980s – had been in its fleet since 2003, with regular maintenance.
“We are mobilising every resource we have to protect human lives,” the owner, Panorama Deck Ltd, told state media through a spokesperson.
The larger Viking Sigyn is a 95-room floating hotel of the kind that has multiplied as Danube river cruises gained popularity in recent years.
“There were no injuries to Viking crew or Viking guests. We are cooperating with the authorities as required,” said a spokesperson for operator Swiss-based Viking Cruises Ltd.
The tragedy took place five years after the Sewol disaster in South Korea in which more than 300 people, mostly children, perished when a ferry capsized in April 2014.